Continuing this hypothetical offseason, the early Browns 2021 NFL Draft preview moves to the offensive side of the football. On paper, the Cleveland Browns offense could be one of the strongest units in the NFL in 2020.
Under newly anointed head coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, the Browns will hope to unlock the massive skill position talent after finishing just 22nd in the NFL in points per game (20.9) under former coach Freddie Kitchens.
For this first time since Joe Thomas manned the left tackle position, there is optimism for the team along the offensive line. The pieces are all there for the unit to take a huge step to near the top of the league in most categories.
If it all meshes, there aren’t a ton of glaring weaknesses… at least for the immediate future. Like is true of every team in the free agency era, there are decisions that need to be made. Building substantially through the draft is a common denominator for most successful franchises.
Where are the potential holes? Who are the 2021 NFL Draft prospects who can best fit them? We preview several prospects the Cleveland Browns should keep their eyes on.
What to watch in 2020: Browns’ Wide Receiver Room
A lot was expected from Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. who was acquired by the team last March in exchange for draft picks and safety Jabrill Peppers. Reuniting with his former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry had the making of an imposing tandem, amongst the best in the league.
Expectations were not quite met in year one for the team. Beckham recorded the second most receiving yardage (1,035), receptions (74) and touchdowns (4) of his career. Second only to his 2017 season that saw him limited to four games with the New York Giants. Huge cause for concern or just a victim of a struggling offense?
With that success Beckham has experienced, you have to lean towards the latter. With an improved offensive line in 2020, on top of new head coach Kevin Stefanski taking over, optimism should again be high for the talented wide receiver.
Jarvis Landry has been one of more dependable yet unspectacular wide receivers across the league since being selected by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The long term outlook for the tandem might be in some question but for now, they should firmly consider a part of the plans until Landry’s contract sets to expire following the 2022 season.
Behind Beckham and Landry, Rashard Higgins and Khadarel Hodge are set to be the main contributors for the wide receiver group. “Hollywood” Higgins has had some flashes but his long term outlook remains cloudy, especially considering his contract is set to expire following the 2020 season.
The same is true of Hodge, working on a one year deal. A once promising wide receiver prospect, Taywan Taylor is set to attempt to revive his NFL career as a part of the Browns roster. Like Higgins and Hodge, his contract is also up following the 2020 season.
The only other interesting piece is Donovan Peoples-Jones who was selected by the team in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. DPJ is an athletic freak who was plagued by durability issues and less than ideal quarterback play while at Michigan. He should have every opportunity to fight for playing time but the outlook of a sixth rounder making a huge impact in year one is a troubling proposition, especially during an offseason like this one.
Even with Beckham and Landry set to rule as the top wide receiver again in 2021, the depth issues are enough to warrant some attention during the 2021 NFL Draft. If quarterback Baker Mayfield is going to ascend to his potential, continuing to improve the supporting cast around him is paramount.
2021 NFL Draft Wide Receiver Class
Ja’Marr Chase, Clemson Tigers
Burrow to Chase
Game. Set. Match. pic.twitter.com/HgnGvoFHoN
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) October 13, 2019
As was true during the 2020 NFL Draft, this year’s cycle is a good one to be in the market for a difference maker at wide receiver. Everyone knows the 2019 Biletnikoff award winner and consensus All-American in LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. As the early favorite to be the first wide receiver selected off the board, Chase plays with that alpha mentality, consistently flashes physicality and winning at the catch point.
The New Alabama Duo
Even with former Alabama wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III off to greener pastures in the NFL, there are still a couple mutants heading back to Tuscaloosa. Quietly, DeVonta Smith led the Crimson Tide with 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns on the deepest wide receiver corps in all of college football. He is a slender technician who shows outstanding hip fluidity as a route runner. With soft hands and a solid catch radius, Smith boasts a nice all round skill set.
Jaylen Waddle is the more diminutive slot man but is arguably the most explosive offensive player in the entire country. Despite huge losses, Alabama isn’t hurting for talent in their wide receiver crew. Waddle could challenge as the most dynamic pass catcher in college football in 2020, with incredible flexibility, game breaking speed and versatility on offense and special teams.
— InsideBamaRecruiting (@RTRnews) June 30, 2020
Rondale Moore, Purdue Boilermakers
The Big Ten conference doesn’t often boast top of the line skill position talent outside of Columbus. For 2021, they have two strong candidates to finish at the wide receiver board when all is said and done. If you are in the market for a dynamic slot man who doubles as a YAC machine and return specialist, look no further than Purdue’s Rondale Moore. High level athleticism packed into a squatty frame, Moore is an opposing defensive coordinator’s biggest nightmare after the catch.
Oh my goodness. Purdue’s Rondale Moore has moves. pic.twitter.com/Pdf4dohHVL
— Max Olson (@max_olson) August 31, 2018
Rashod Bateman. Minnesota Golden Gophers
A part of some incredible success from the Golden Gophers 11 win campaign, Rashod Batemen would burst onto the scene and steal some of the spotlight away from Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick Tyler Johnson. With a prototypical frame, notable route running ability and admirable work at the catch point, Bateman has all the talent to ascend to the top of the list with a big 2020 season.
RASHOD BATEMAN IS A STUUUD 🔥 pic.twitter.com/cFKS7os46P
— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) August 30, 2019
A year removed from a historically deep wide receiver class, the 2021 cycle has a chance to challenge the class in terms of depth, with even more talent at the top. Wherever the position is upgraded, this is certainly the year to do it.
What to watch in 2020: Browns’ Running back Group
Spearheading the “don’t pay running backs” movement, the Cleveland Browns are going to have some tough decisions to make soon despite what is sure to be outstanding production during the 2020 season.
After finishing second in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,494 yards, third year pro Nick Chubb asserted himself as one of the better young running backs across the league. He provided a level of consistency for the team, on top of big play potential over the entirety of the season. Despite some durability concerns coming out of the University of Georgia, Chubb has yet to miss a game during his career, seeing a full 32 game slate over his two years.
There is a decision that will have to be made by the Cleveland Browns pretty quickly here. The team will have control over Chubb through the 2021 season. The problem is that they were not able to secure five year control over Chubb, drafting him just outside of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
So will they resign him? Chubb is sure to command a decent amount of coin for his services. Paying running backs big money has proved to be a less than ideal proposition. It doesn’t help that Chubb was a bit of an older prospect coming out of Georgia. He will be 26 years old when his contract has expired.
For a position that carries the shortest shelf life on your football team, it’s hard to project huge money into the position. Then you go down the depth chart and see the name Kareem Hunt and some optimism may quickly ensue.
Despite the controversy that curtailed the ending to his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Hunt is one of the more talented running backs in the NFL in his own right. Transitioning from Chubb to Hunt on a potentially smaller level deal is an interesting idea.
Unfortunately his contract is up after next season. A couple seasons removed from carrying full volume as the Chiefs top ball carrier, you have to believe that higher volume has to be the goal for Hunt this go around.
Is he going to be content taking a mid level deal to be Chubb’s backup for another season and see where things go? It seems highly unlikely.
With so much uncertainty at the running back position over the next couple seasons, the 2021 NFL Draft could be the chance to solidify the position for the next four to five seasons. With a year for a rookie to acclimate, they could be taken along slowly, providing valuable reps behind a guy like Chubb.
2021 NFL Draft Running Back Class
With Chubb a guaranteed member of the team for at least the next two seasons, the first round is probably not the best route for the Cleveland Browns to fill their depth issues and plan for the future. Whether it is or isn’t, there are a ton of interesting options in the 2021 class. From an early perspective, the depth of the class appears quite impressive.
Travis Etienne, Clemson Tigers
The headliner of the group is Clemson star Travis Etienne. Blessed with elite long speed and surprising contact balance, Etienne has posted back to back 1,600 yard rushing seasons for one of the premier programs in college football. The more his game can develop from a passing game perspective, the better chance he has to cement himself into the first round conversation.
Watching Travis Etienne is insane, man. pic.twitter.com/ZLtpiBlUJb
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) November 29, 2018
Najee Harris, Alabama Crimson Tide
The other big name most casual fans are familiar with early on in the process is Alabama running back Najee Harris. A much different runner at 6’2” and 230 pounds, Harris is your traditional gap power runner who makes his living inside the tackles. He does, however, possess some really nice short area explosiveness for the position. Add in some nice contributions in the passing game and you are talking about a potential high floor runner with lead back potential.
Footwork. Najee Harris. pic.twitter.com/E9WsWTFR2e
— JWack (@JaredWackerlyFF) July 7, 2020
Journey Brown, Penn State
Built similarly to Nick Chubb, Penn State running back Journey Brown has a lot of traits that NFL teams are going to find very desirable. He is a well built runner with a powerfully put together lower half. Brown has some noticeable contact balance, consistently working through contact at a high clip. Possessing both short area quickness and long speed, Brown was a Pennsylvania state champion in the 100 meter dash in high school, posting a personal best time of 10.43 seconds. With further development, Brown could be one of the big risers in the 2021 NFL Draft.
JOURNEY BROWN BEAST MODEpic.twitter.com/jqLMPIepcQ
— Barstool Penn State (@PSUBarstool) December 28, 2019
Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis Tigers
If the Cleveland Browns want to go off the rails a bit, the team could choose the ultimate space player in Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell. Fresh off a dynamic redshirt freshman season, Gainwell is an all around playmaker who affects the game everytime he has the football. With him in the building, he could in theory take over third down duties from the departed Kareem Hunt while he continues to develop his game. While he is a lightly built runner as it stands, Gainwell has a well put together lower half that could allow him to continue to develop as a potential lead ball carrier down the line.
— Ryan Roberts (@RiseNDraft) May 30, 2020
No matter your flavor, preference of style, the 2021 running back class has the talent to fill the need. With some impending decisions at the position, the cycle could provide the perfect remedy for the Cleveland Browns running back room.
What to watch in 2020: Browns’ Offensive guards
For the first time in some time, the offensive line for the Cleveland Browns sits as one of the most talented across the entirely of the NFL.
Along the interior, Joel Bitonio has been one of the more underrated performers at left guard for several years, being selected to the last two Pro Bowls. Signed through the 2023 season, the long term future for Bitonio is going to have to be figured out but the Cleveland Browns still have some time to make that decision on their course of action.
Center J.C. Tretter will once again set up next to Bitonio, where he has stood as a symbol of consistency for the team, starting all 48 games he has played for the team since coming over from the Green Bay Packers following the 2016 season.
While there isn’t much notoriety next to his name in terms of Pro Bowl nominations of personal designations, Tretter has become one of the more consistent performers at center in the league. He, like Bitonio, still has three seasons of team control remaining on his deal. Unless performance falls off of a cliff, Bitonio and Tretter should be counted on to make up the majority of the interior for the foreseeable future.
The right guard position is a little less of a sure thing for the offensive unit.
There is some optimism for Wyatt Teller potentially taking up the bulk of the snaps there, showing spurts of solid play since coming over from the Buffalo Bills. The position was a bit of a revolving door.
Competition looks to be a high point of emphasis to determine the best starting option for the position. Chris Hubbard and Drew Forbes will be heavily involved in that competition.
Forbes is the clear long shot for the position, only seeing action in two contests in 2019. Hubbard, on the other hand, is an interesting addition to the competition.
After starting 13 games at right tackle this past season, the additions of free agent Jack Conklin and first round draft pick Jedrick Wills have forced Hubbard inside. Barring one of these three grabbing the position and solidifying, the right guard spot sits as very replaceable.
Luckily for the Cleveland Browns, their needs again fit some of the biggest strengths in the 2021 NFL Draft.
2021 Interior Offensive Line Class
After an underwhelming interior offensive lineman class in the 2020 NFL Draft, this year’s cycle looks a lot more talented during the early portion of Summer scouting. With both talent near the top and quality depth, it is definitely the year to need some help on the interior for NFL teams. This provides a great option for the Cleveland Browns, looking to find their right guard and solidifying one of the more talented units in the entire league.
The center position looks really strong early on. With players like Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma) and Josh Myers (Ohio State), there are two first round caliber centers heading towards 2021… which is pretty rare. With Tretter in place, center is obviously not a point of emphasis but both Humphrey and Myers could play guard in a pinch, both possessing some ideal length for that transition.
We aren’t in business to force square pegs into round holes however, especially with a couple highly talented guard prospects making up the class.
Trey Smith, Tennessee Volunteers
University of Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith came to the Volunteers as a five star level talent with optimism through the roof. His freshman season was as seamless of a transition as you could expect from a offensive lineman recruit. 2018 didn’t quite live up to expectation for Smith, trying his hand at left tackle for the squad.
Not all his fault, Smith has dealt with recurring issues with blood clots in his lungs that have cost him some valuable reps, both in practice and in game. 2019 for a while was in high question for Smith. That question was quickly answered.
Putting together a full season for the Volunteers, Smith secured various All American honors, once again showing his outstanding potential at full volume. From a physical perspective, you’d be hard pressed to find many more physically impressive offensive lineman prospects in recent memory. Sporting an impressive frame at 6’6” and 330 pounds, Smith is able to create an astounding amount of power in very tight spaces.
Here is Trey Smith (LG #73) showing some absolutely ridiculous power working up to the second level. When he is able to consistently transition that power throughout the entire rep, it’s lights out. Smith could be a top 10 player in next year’s class if he puts it all together. pic.twitter.com/1P3M8b3HRE
— Ryan Roberts (@RiseNDraft) May 28, 2020
With this combination of size, length and power, he’d be a hot commodity for almost every NFL team. You add in some insane movement skills for a man this size, that’s when the word “special” begins to enter the conversation.
Wyatt Davis, Ohio State Buckeyes
If the pandemic forces Cleveland to stay in the Buckeye state, they are in luck. Ohio State happens to sport another top shelf talent at the potion in offensive guard Wyatt Davis. Like Smith, Davis is an appealing combination of size, power and athleticism.
Teaming with Myers inside, the Ohio State Buckeyes have potentially the most outstanding interior duo in all of college football. Equally adept in the run and pass game, Davis has first rounder written all over him. It isn’t often that you get two offensive guard prospects first round caliber in the same season.
MSU IDL Naquan Jones is listed at 338 pounds and Wyatt Davis just punched him three gaps over 😅 pic.twitter.com/rIsqmKA5ac
— Kyle Crabbs (@GrindingTheTape) June 13, 2020
It just so happens that the 2021 NFL Draft is making up for the shortcomings of the 2020 class to a high degree. The Browns have come to the right place to find their long term solution at right guard.
Nothing like a little 2021 NFL Draft preview to get the juices flowing… and to take a momentary pause from the uncertainty of the season. The Cleveland Browns are in line for major improvements heading into 2020. With a few hits next April, the groundwork for a dynamic offense could be laid for the foreseeable future.